The Victorian state opposition has revealed a pledge to increase funding for the state’s ombudsman and anti-corruption watchdog, to rebuild a “system of integrity and honesty in government”.
- The opposition says that if the government wins, it will increase the IBAC budget by $10 million
- Government minister Ben Carroll says promise is ‘hollow’ and ‘difficult to digest’
- Polls predict that the opposition is unlikely to win the government in the November elections.
Under the opposition plan, the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) would regain broader powers for public hearings.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said that under the pledge, the Coalition would inject an additional $10 million into the IBAC budget per year and increase funding for the Victorian Ombudsman by $2 million per year.
“We want to pay respect back to those integrity watchdogs, that’s what the Victorians expect us to do.”
“The National Liberal Party is focused on rebuilding our system of integrity and honesty in government and the Andrews government is focused on denigrating and defunding them.”
Requests for more funding for independent bodies are a perennial problem in Victoria, with both IBAC and the Ombudsman regularly saying they need more to operate strongly.
In last year’s budget, Treasurer Tim Pallas allocated $54 million for IBAC, an increase from previous years, and $20.2 million for the Ombudsman during fiscal year 2021-22.
Pallas will deliver his next budget on Tuesday.
Opposition Business Manager Kim Wells said the Liberal and national policy would also involve amendments to the Parliamentary Committees Act to allow the Joint Committee on Integrity and Oversight to have budget oversight.
“Never again will they be subject to the whim of the Labor government or any future government,” he said.
“It will mean that they will always be properly funded and will always be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.”
Guy said he would reverse an Andrews government move that meant most IBAC hearings are now being held in private.
He said this was done “to weaken IBAC oversight” and “to protect this government”.
Government already under scrutiny
Labor won the 2018 state election in a landslide, with polls suggesting the Coalition is unlikely to win the November 2022 vote.
But Guy’s election promise could shift the focus to integrity issues at a time when the government is already under scrutiny.
The Age newspaper recently reported that IBAC was questioning Prime Minister Daniel Andrews on issues including branch stacking and misuse of public resources.
Quotes from the draft report, verified by ABC, refer to an unethical culture regarding factional activity that “constantly comes up” during their investigations.
Branch build-up issues within the party came to light due to the 2014 “red shirt” saga, which prompted a joint investigation between IBAC and the Victorian ombudsman.
The investigation, known as Operation Watts, held public hearings as well as a series of private interviews.
As a result of the investigation, the Ombudsman found in 2018 that Victorian Labor misused $388,000 of public money to campaign. Labor has since repaid the funds.
On Thursday, Andrews declined to confirm whether he had been questioned, saying it would be “extremely inappropriate” for him to comment on a report that had not yet been released.
However, he did confirm that a draft report stemming from Operation Watts had been sent to those involved in the investigation.
Guy accused the Andrews government of corruption.
“The Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission, the auditor general, the ombudsman reported instances of corrupt behavior, whether it was inappropriate or outright outright,” he said.
“That is what we are seeing with this government.”
A Commonwealth integrity commission is a matter of federal election. Figures from ABC Vote Compass show that almost half of Australians think corruption is “a big problem” in the country, and more than a third think it is “somewhat of a problem”.
The government labels the ad ‘hollow’
Government Minister Ben Carroll defended the government’s funding record and criticized the failure of the federal Liberal Party to deliver the promised national integrity body.
“Under our administration, we are investing record in the Broad-Based Independent Anti-Corruption Commission, they have important work to do when it comes to integrity, and I hope that, at the federal level, we will have a body as soon as possible,” he said. .
Carroll said it was “a bit hard to bear that the leader of the opposition was asking for changes in IBAC”.
He referenced the now infamous “Lobster with a Mobster” dinner in which Mr. Guy referred himself to IBAC.
“Their ad is really an empty ad, when they were in office previously, they never funded IBAC to the extent that it needs. Under our investments, IBAC has had a record investment,” said Carroll.
He said the legislation governing IBAC “will continue to be scrutinized” for possible improvements.